Cohen’s public testimony likely to be a spectacle
Washington – President Donald Trump’s former personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, said Tuesday that the American people can decide “exactly who is telling the truth” when he testifies Wednesday to the House Oversight and Reform committee, setting the stage for a blockbuster public hearing that threatens to overshadow Trump’s summit in Vietnam with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
Cohen, once Trump’s loyal attorney and fixer, has turned on his former boss and cooperated with special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation. He begins a three-year prison sentence in May after he pleaded guilty to lying to Congress in 2017 and committing campaign finance violations while he was working for Trump.
“I look forward to tomorrow, to be able to in my voice to tell the American people my story,” Cohen told reporters Tuesday.
He made the comments after meeting with the Senate intelligence committee for more than nine hours behind closed doors. Cohen said he appreciated the opportunity to “clear the record and tell the truth” to the Senate committee after acknowledging he lied to the panel in 2017.
It was the first of three consecutive days of congressional appearances for Cohen. After the public hearing Wednesday, he will appear before the House intelligence panel Thursday, again speaking in private.
Cohen’s public testimony is likely to be a spectacle, in part because of the accusations he plans to level against the president. He’ll give lawmakers a behind-the-scenes account of what he will claim is Trump’s lying, racism and cheating, and possibly even criminal conduct, according to a person with knowledge of the matter. He is expected to provide what he will claim is evidence, in the form of documents, said the person, who requested anonymity to discuss the confidential testimony.
Republicans are expected to aggressively attempt to discredit Cohen, given that he has acknowledged lying previously. White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said in a statement Tuesday it was “laughable that anyone would take a convicted liar like Cohen at his word, and pathetic to see him given yet another opportunity to spread his lies.”
One Republican House member did more than just question Cohen’s credibility. Florida Republican Matt Gaetz tweeted Tuesday that the world is “about to learn a lot” about Cohen and suggested he knew of disparaging information that could come out during the hearing.
Gaetz, a Trump ally who talks to the president frequently, is not a member of the committee that will question Cohen. He did not offer any evidence. Still, the tweet was extraordinary because his remarks appear to be threatening or intimidating a witness.
“We’re witness testing, not witness tampering,” Gaetz told reporters. “When witnesses come before Congress their truthfulness and veracity are in question and we have the opportunity to test them.”
Lanny Davis, one of Cohen’s lawyers, said in a statement that he wouldn’t respond to Gaetz’s “despicable lies and personal smears, except to say we trust that his colleagues in the House, both Republicans and Democrats, will repudiate his words and his conduct.”
Democrats have been alternately suspicious of Cohen and eager to hear what he has to say. Sen. Mark Warner, the intelligence panel’s top Democrat, suggested in a brief statement to reporters outside Tuesday’s interview that Cohen had provided important information.
“Two years ago when this investigation started I said it may be the most important thing I am involved in in my public life in the Senate, and nothing I’ve heard today dissuades me from that view,” Warner said.
Senators on the intelligence panel attended Tuesday’s private meeting, a departure from the committee’s usual practice, where witness interviews are conducted by staff only. The Senate intelligence committee chairman, Richard Burr, suggested to The Associated Press before the meeting that his committee would take steps to ensure Cohen was telling the truth.
“I’m sure there will be some questions we know the answers to, so we’ll test him to see whether in fact he’ll be truthful this time,” Burr said.
At least one Republican member of the intelligence panel refused to go to the meeting. “I don’t have any desire to go listen to a lying lawyer,” said Texas Sen. John Cornyn.
In addition to lying to Congress, Cohen pleaded guilty last year to campaign finance violations for his involvement in payments to two women who allege they had affairs with Trump.
Federal prosecutors in New York have said Trump directed Cohen to arrange the payments to buy the silence of porn actress Stormy Daniels and former Playboy model Karen McDougal in the run-up to the 2016 campaign. Cohen told a judge that he agreed to cover up Trump’s “dirty deeds” out of “blind loyalty.”
Trump denies the allegations and says Cohen lied to get a lighter sentence.
The person with knowledge of what Cohen intends to tell Congress said he will provide information about Trump’s financial statements that he will claim shows Trump deflated assets to pay lower taxes on golf courses; will provide details of the Daniels payment and claim that Trump organized a cover-up by pretending Cohen would be repaid; and claim that Trump talked to him and asked him questions about the Trump Moscow project throughout 2016.
He is also expected to discuss what he knows about a meeting between Trump campaign associates and a Russian lawyer in Trump Tower before the 2016 election, a matter that is of particular interest to Mueller and congressional investigators.
Cohen is not expected to discuss matters related to Russia in the public hearing, saving that information for the closed-door interviews with the intelligence committees. House Oversight and Reform Chairman Elijah Cummings has said he doesn’t want to interfere with Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election and links to Trump’s campaign.
Members of the Oversight panel are expected to ask questions about the campaign finance violations, Trump’s business practices and compliance with tax laws and “the accuracy of the president’s public statements,” according to a memo laying out the scope of the hearing.